Excelling in accelerating

Breaking down Houston's 4 new startup accelerator programs

Houston has seen four new accelerators enter the market this year. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's official — 2019 is the year of accelerators in Houston. Four different accelerator programs have announced plans to launch Houston programs this year so far — and they are all bringing something different to the table.

All four of the programs represent global programs or big companies recognizing the potential in Houston, which, according to Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice University Entrepreneurship Initiative, is a key part of the equation.

"When you're talking about a place like Houston, what we need here right now is interest from the outside," Hochberg says. "We need some certification by people from the outside that in fact this is a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship."

Houston's most successful accelerator has been homegrown — right out of the Texas Medical Center. TMCx is on its ninth cohort since it launched in 2014.

Also founded in Houston, SURGE Accelerator had a different fate. It launched in 2011 and closed in 2016. Hochberg says there are a number of reasons for the program's demise including disengaged corporations.

"I do feel there's a lot of opportunity around this, and I don't think we should look at SURGE as some sort of indicator of what will happen to an accelerator in the city," she says. "If anything, I would look at TMCx and look at the potential that we see from that."

The biggest benefit to these accelerator programs, Hochberg says, is the new influx of startups that come to Houston. It's not only the accelerators' cohorts, but just the feasibility of the success and resources available. More startups translates to more investments.

"When you have startup activity and good startups, then money, private investment money will follow," Hochbergs says. "Private investment money doesn't just show up."

But bringing in these programs puts the pressure on the city to focus on the environment it's providing new companies and talent. Innovative companies thrive in major metros with things like protected bike lanes, city living, sustainability — and Houston needs to work on these things, Hochberg says, adding that Houston's ability to boast on its single-family homes is less and less attractive to younger demographics.

Building the city up with these types of infrastructure is going to be key when it comes to retaining these startups that accelerators bring in.

"We can create accelerators from here until tomorrow," Hochberg says. "People will send a couple of people down for two days a week to Houston sit at the accelerator, but they'll keep their company somewhere else and not actually move to Houston. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll open up like a little satellite office. We don't want that."

So, what exactly are the differences between these four new startup accelerators? Here's a breakdown of each.

MassChallenge Texas

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas first announced its Houston program in January. The Boston-based accelerator program is currently in its final phase of deciding its inaugural cohort. The program is for early stage companies, and is industry agnostic. Jon Nordby, former director of strategy at Houston Exponential, leads the Houston program as managing director.

Launch: July 2019
Location: Downtown Houston
Number of cohort companies: 25
Length: 6 weeks — July through August
Origin: Boston
Requirements: The program looks for applicants that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year.
Equity requirements: None.
Prizes on the line: Free office space, mentorship, and, usually, monetary prizes. (Currently, the organization hasn't confirmed cash prizes for the inaugural cohort.)

Founder Institute

Houston's new Founder Institute chapter has teamed up with Alice. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Founder Institute Houston is the earliest stage accelerator that's not associated with a university. Companies must be in the pre-funding stage of growth, and, while 30 companies will be chosen per cohort, only a fraction will complete the full 14 weeks. The Silicon Valley-originated concept now has chapters in almost 200 cities around the world. FI announced its new chapter in Houston in March after first launching in Austin.

Launch: May 2019
Location: Downtown (out of Station Houston)
Number of cohort companies: 30
Length: 14 weeks
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: Company must be pre-funding.
Equity requirements: 4 percent
Prizes on the line: Cash prizes, discounts, access to worldwide alumni network, etc.

Plug and Play Tech Center

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play Tech Center confirmed they were entering the Houston market earlier this month. The Silicon Valley organization has 30 locations all over the world and plans to open five new locations in the United States over the next six months to a year — one being Houston.

Launch: Fourth quarter 2019
Location: Currently scouting for a location.
Number of cohort companies: 20
Length: Three months, twice a year.
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: The program is stage agnostic, but cohorts are focused on a specific industry. Houston's likely to be health and energy/sustainability, though nothing is set in stone.
Equity requirements: None
Prizes on the line: In-house venture capital opportunities, corporate connections, etc.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

In April, the city announced that Microsoft and Intel were backing a Smart Cities Accelerator program that would accelerate companies with solutions to some of Houston's key problems. The first cohort will be focused on solutions within resilience and transportation, but each cohort will have a different set of issues. With these rotating themes, every cohort will be different.

Launch: September 2019
Location: Station Houston (then later The Ion, when it opens)
Number of cohort companies: 10
Length: 10 months
Requirements: The first set of companies will be chosen for their ability to solve problems within mobility and transportation in Houston. (Other cohorts will have other topics.)
Prizes on the line: Pilot programs and permanent business from the city of Houston.

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers it's usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.